On the Line: Koa Duncan of Stax Cookie Bar, Part One
I'm having difficulty typing up this week's interview, because each time I start to elaborate on the work pastry chef Koa Duncan does I get a grumbly in my tummy. They may not be open until later this month, but fresh baked cookies make for excellent bookends around quality ice cream. You may need to fix up a sandwich before reading up on Stax, Duncan and her desserts. Ugh, and those hunger pangs strike again . . .
Where are you located exactly, and when do you hope to open by?
Stax Cookie Bar is located in University Center across from UC Irvine, and we'll be open at the end of September. It's an exciting time at the center with Eureka! also opening soon. We think this is a great combination, and can easily be reached from Irvine and Newport Beach.
How often will you rotate flavors? Will there be gluten-free options?
We will rotate the cookie selections often. Of course, we will have the standards every day, but the fun, more exotic cookies will change all the time. We will offer about 16 cookie flavors daily, and we'll always have at least two to three gluten-free and vegan options every day. All of our cookies are made with 100% organic flour (or gluten-free flour), and we feel this is a big point of separation from us and our competitors.
Your best recent food find:
We got some amazing melons from Weiser Farms last week-- better than any dessert!
One food you can't live without:
Kefir. It makes my stomach happy, and is a great snack on the run. Close runners up are peanut butter and Parmesan cheese.
Who came up with the name?
The owner, Rick Boller, is a restaurant industry veteran. He liked Stax, as it refers to our concept of stacking delicious cookies and ice cream.
Tell us about your culinary experience.
As a child, I baked a lot with my mother, but it wasn't until halfway through art school that I realized I wanted to be a pastry chef. I want to the CCA (California Culinary Academy) in San Francisco, which got my foot in the door to work at One Market Restaurant. Paige Retus was the pastry chef at the time, and she rocked my world. We were right across from the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, and we took full advantage of it-- using tons of fresh produce, making our own jams, sorbets and ice creams.
After that, I made high-end wedding cakes, did a stint as a vegan pastry chef and worked at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills as a sous chef. I then went on to work as pastry chef at Bastide, Water Grill and Delfina restaurants. I took time off when I had my daughter, and now I'm creating cookies for Stax.
Culinarily speaking, Orange County has the best:
We recently moved from Los Angeles to Long Beach, so I'm still discovering. I'm really loving your Vietnamese cuisine.
Are there stereotypes that people have about pastry chefs?
I'm sure! I think we're all supposed to be plump. That whole "never trust a skinny cook" thing!
Favorite places to eat.
My husband and I recently ate at Republique in LA, and it was fantastic! The chefs, Walter and Margarita, are incredibly talented.
You're making breakfast; what are you having?
I'm not a big breakfast eater, but love making pancakes with my daughter.
Best culinary tip for the home baker:
Mise en place, which is French for "set in place." When baking and cooking in the kitchen, preparation is the key to success. Read your recipe thoroughly, check your ingredients, measure them (if you need to) and then start. Have everything ready to go-- instead of turning around and finding you're out of sugar!
Let's talk about your favorite Stax combinations!
In desserts, I love chocolate and peanut butter, strawberries and lime, peaches and lemon verbena, and habanero chile and dark chocolate. The latest fun cookie flavor combinations we just added to the menu for Stax are cherry mint, sesame green tea and maple bacon.
Most undervalued ingredient:
Love. Thinking about where your ingredients come from and who made them, making sure they are good quality.
Your earliest food memory:
I have so many . . .My mother was a great cook and baker. She made the best cinnamon rolls, chicken cacciatore and beef stroganoff (she was an avid reader of Sunset magazine, and was always trying new recipes). My dad would make waffles or pancakes on Sundays; my favorite were the buttermilk buckwheat pancakes [Editor's Note: These were also all her favorite meals growing up, plus outings for pizza and root beer.]
Can we discuss the different affogatos?
Rick Boller (the owner) loves affogatos, and was looking for more dessert options to go on the menu. He wanted to have more than just the typical espresso over vanilla ice cream, so he added the hot chocolate and salted caramel flavors. And the guest can choose any ice cream they want, not just the standard vanilla and chocolate.
What is your beverage of choice?
I'm drinking iced coffee right now, which I usually make at my house in the morning.
Let's go over pricing.
Our signature dessert, the ice cream sandwiches, are $3.75. Cookies are $1.25 each, or buy three for $3.75 and get one free. Gluten-free cookies are $1.75 each. A dozen cookies are $9.95, and gift boxes and tins are available for $15.95 for a dozen and $25.95 for two dozen. Our specialty desserts range from $4.50 for a "Smookie", which is warm, gooey cookie dough topped with vanilla ice cream and hot fudge, to $5.75 for an affogato, espresso poured over vanilla or chocolate ice cream.
How did you decide on using Fosselman's ice cream?
We did extensive research on ice cream across the country, and we all liked Fosselman's the best. They use the highest quality ingredients, no preservatives and it's handmade right here in Southern California. It is a family business that has a 95-year history, and Rick knows the owners, Chris and John Fosselman.
Where was your most recent meal?
I'm so lucky my husband is a chef as well, and likes to cook on his days off. His favorite thing right now is making pasta with my daughter. Last night, we made cavatelli with peas. We found a cavatelli maker at an antique show recently.
Weirdest customer request (and did you do it?):
This doesn't apply to us (as we're not open yet), but Rick wanted me to attempt a wasabi cookie for the menu. It turned out awful, and we put it on the back burner for now. I love a challenge, but only if I can make it delicious!
Stax Cookie Bar is opening this month at 4187 Campus Drive, #M174, Irvine; www.staxcookiebar.com.